Refusal to Play on the Sabbath Ends Jewish School's Basketball Season

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The Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston, just had the best boys basketball season in the program's history. On Friday, they advanced to the state semifinals with a 27 point victory over Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School of Kerrville.

With a 23-5 record, Beren was slated to take on Dallas Convenant in the Texas Assocation of Private and Parochial Schools' Class 2A state semifinals near Dallas. The AA tournament features schools with enrollments of 55 to 120 students. The Beren Stars were hoping to bring home a trophy to commemorate their success but because of a scheduling conflict their season is over.

Turns out the AA semifinals are scheduled for 9:00 p.m. Friday night, which conflicts with  the Jewish Sabbath.  In accordance with Jewish tradition, the Beren players must refrain from a range of activities, including travel and competitive sports, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Shabbat is considered a sacred day when Jews are freed from their regular labors to spend time with family and contemplate the spiritual aspects of life.

"Just as TAPPS doesn’t schedule games on Sunday in deference to Christian teams, we expected that as a Jewish team, there would be grounds for a scheduling change," Beren's head of school, Rabby Harry Sinoff, told JTA.

photo credit: Neenabeena via photopin cc

The administration at Beren Academy sent an appeal to TAPPS in hopes of moving the semifinal game to an earlier start, but the appeal was denied Monday.

According to the Houston Chronicle:

"It's disappointing. I've been here 10 years and I've always known where our priorities lie," said Chris Cole, Beren's basketball coach and athletic director. "We were hopeful and optimistic going in that we could be able to do both - adhere to the religious beliefs here and play basketball.

TAPPS athletic director Edd Burleson said in an e-mail to Cole that Beren was made aware prior to being accepted into TAPPS that state tournaments were scheduled on Friday and Saturday.

"You agreed at the time that this could be a problem for your school, however, the school leadership wished to pursue membership in TAPPS," Burleson wrote in the e-mail. "With this understanding, the Board approved Beren Academy for membership."


Our Lady of the Hills, the team that Beren Academy defeated in the regional final, will replace Beren in the state semifinal game. In a twist, the regional final was originally scheduled for a Friday night but Our Lady of the Hills agreed to play Beren in the early afternoon instead. Without the accommodation, Beren would have been forced to forfeit.

Now the Houston branch of the Anti Defamation League (ADL) has weighed in and  sent a letter to Burleson encouraging him to allow Robert M. Beren Academy to play in the statewide tournament.

“ADL recognizes that many of the private and parochial schools with TAPPS membership are faith-based institutions where religion is an extremely significant part of the education process and the lives of students who attend, “ said Martin B. Cominsky, ADL Southwest Regional Director.

“We are hopeful the leadership of TAPPS will keep that in mind when making a decision about Beren Academy’s request for a change in the semi-final schedule, and will make that change accordingly.”

Organized sports may not consistent with the spirit of Shabbat, but for student-athletes as committed to their sport as they are to tradition, there should be a bit of flexibility. In some Jewish communities, that means sports leagues play on Sunday rather than Saturday but depending on the number of players, that's not always feasible.

Sooner or later, most talented Jewish athletes realize they have to make serious compromises with their religion if they are to compete at the highest level of their game. Is high school the time for that decision?

p.s. For those who think Jewish men can't jump, here's a list of Jews dunking and for those looking for a feel-good movie about a Jewish basketball team, check out Full-Court Miracle.

[UPDATE 2/28] An online petition aims to get TAPPS to reconsider changing the game's scheduled time. Those interested can read and sign the petition here.

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